By Sgt. Jim Wilt, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service
Sept. 11, 2007 - At 5:16 p.m., the only sounds that could be heard here were the distant drone of helicopter rotors and the flap of flags in the wind. In the United States, it was 8:46 a.m., Sept. 11, six years to the minute after a plane hijacked by terrorists struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York.
For one minute, servicemembers attending a memorial ceremony here were silent.
For one minute, these servicemembers honored those who perished that fateful day.
For one minute, these servicemembers honored those who fought back on a plane.
For one minute, these servicemembers were reminded why they are here.
"The world that was behind me when I went into school that morning was gone forever, and the new one waiting for me that afternoon was wildly different," said Army Sgt. Gregory J. Barbaccia during a speech at a ceremony commemorating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Barbaccia was a 17-year-old high school student in lower Manhattan when the attacks happened. Barbaccia, who is now 23 and serving here, was one of several speakers at the memorial.
His speech revealed his memories of Sept. 11, 2001. "Downtown that day looked like exactly what it was, a war zone," Barbaccia said.
He painted a vivid picture of what that war zone looked like with his words.
"A layer of ash covered the streets and a cacophony of alarms refused to cease. I remember the 60-block walk home where my friends and I walked north up the middle of 6th Avenue, which was completely void of all traffic, except for sporadic rescue vehicles from neighboring counties with unfamiliar demarcations rushing downtown, their sirens piercing the eerie silence. Crowds of people gathered outside any establishment with a television, standing like statues in anesthetized silence," he said.
"From virtually all points in Manhattan, one could look to the south and see a huge plume of smoke hovering over the rubble where two towers once stood, two majestic American symbols, symbols representing both commerce in the free world and democracy," Barbaccia added.
For Barbaccia and his friends, the impact of what happened didn't hit him until the evening of the 11th. "When the death toll was repeated that evening in the media, my friends began grasping the horror that their parents might not be coming home," he said.
"As for me, in that strange and surreal moment, the die was cast," Barbaccia said. "A seed in my mind was deeply planted and roots already taking hold."
Following the attacks, Barbaccia said, he and his friends spent their time handing out supplies to rescue workers near "Ground Zero."
"In my enthusiasm and focus to do what I could, there was no discerning morning from afternoon or day from night," he said. "Just knowing that I was there to serve, I was there to show my gratitude, I was there to say, 'Yes, I believe.'
"We kept handing supplies to the unending convoy heading into the abyss, and the people kept cheering," Barbaccia said.
The terrorist attacks left their mark on Barbaccia as they left their marks on many others. "I'll never forget the acrid smell, the fearful and numbed look on people's faces, the sounds and the sour taste in my mouth," he said.
Those memories led him to join the Army. "I knew it was my duty to wear this uniform," he said. "America needed help, and life in (America) has been very good to me, and I wanted to give back.
"Due to the way my father raised me and the strong service ethic instilled in me from my high school, I always felt it was my duty to serve, only I was unsure in what capacity," said Barbaccia, who also has had two tours in Iraq. "The violence of the Sept. 11 attacks helped me decide to join the military."
Six years after the attacks, Barbaccia said he believes fighting terrorism in Afghanistan is the right thing to do. "The Taliban had tyrannical rule over this country and robbed its citizens of inherent rights and freedom," he said.
During the ceremony, Army Brig. Gen. Joseph Votel, the Combined Joint Task Force 82 deputy commanding general for operations said Barbaccia "represents the highest quality" of servicemember.
Votel also voiced his own feelings on the events. "I can recall how angry I was that someone could perpetrate an attack on our country," he said.
Army Maj. Gen. Bernard S. Champoux, the International Security Assistance Force deputy director for security, said he was struck by Barbaccia's speech. The attacks were "our generation's Pearl Harbor," Champoux said.
"Events that day changed us as a person and as a nation," he said.
Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Bill Hayes, the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing safety superintendent, was at Ground Zero the day of the attacks. Hayes, who is part of the New York Air National Guard, was a fire fighter aiding in the rescue efforts. "My main focus was to rescue as many people as possible," he said. "We worked and worked until we couldn't work anymore.
"My wife didn't know if I was dead or alive," he said.
Today was an emotional day for many people. Hayes said he had a lump in throat all day.
In his closing remarks, Barbaccia echoed the thoughts of many servicemembers. "That morning terrorists gave their lives to cause those attacks," he said. "So here we stand, six years later, prepared to give ours to prevent further ones."
(Army Sgt. Jim Wilt is assigned to Combined Joint Task Force 82.)